Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Porcupine Mountains July 2023

Buckshot landing after sunset

The Porcupine Mountains are my first backpacking love. I keep going back, year after year, trip after trip, covering new trails, staying at new cabins, yet also finding new ways to appreciate old favorites.

In 2023, The Lovely Sarah and I started our summer with a grand May backpacking trip to Isle Royale. While we didn't have quite so much time at the end of summer, we did want to get away to the UP again. We decided on a short, easy cabin camping trip in the Porcupine Mountains.

This trip wouldn't be a hardcore backpacking adventure. It was very much meant to be "slackpacking" for 5 days and 4 nights. As usual, the rustic cabins we stayed in were part of the charm: no running water, no electricity, but a roof over our heads to keep us dry and away from the bugs. We were lucky enough to reserve one new cabin -- the recently added Cotten cabin -- and two old favorites, Lake of the Clouds and Buckshot cabins. I had visited the Lake of the Clouds cabin once back on a solo trip in 2021 and sang its praises. Sarah and I had stayed in Buckshot as our very first Porkies cabin in 2014 and loved it, but hadn't returned since.

Wildflowers on Lake Superior's shore

Summer was, as always, filled with other commitments. After making our camping reservations (in February, 6 months before our dates -- the earliest possible reservations!), the rest of our lives took over and our Porkies plans fell to the wayside. Our gear was fully tuned up from our Isle Royale trip, so we didn't need to think about much. Right?

Just a few days before our planned departure, we took a closer look at the calendar. Wait, were we really planning to drive all 9 hours from Grand Rapids up to the Porkies, get there early enough to check in at the Visitor Center, drive all the way around the park, and hike in to our first cabin, all in one day? That didn't seem good.

So I started to look for a hotel in Marquette, a good waypoint and one of our favorite UP cities, for the night before our arrival in the Porkies. As it turned out, finding a reasonably priced hotel room for a Saturday night at the peak of summer in the UP's largest city was, well, impossible. We eventually looked farther afield and found a decent room at the Super 8 in Houghton. We would need to drive farther, but at least we'd be closer to the Porkies for the next day (and spend time in another wonderful UP city).

Our packs were far from light. Being a "slackpacking" trip didn't mean leaving the packs behind, rather, it meant bringing all of our luxuries and doing very little hiking. In addition to bringing all of the usual essentials, plus my Serious Camera (3 extra pounds), we also packed hammocks (1 pound each) and tiny foldable camping chairs (another 1 pound each). One of our biggest backpacking complaints is that there's never anywhere to rest your back, and we wanted to give these chairs a good shakedown before using them on a serious camping trip. In the end, our packs were nearly as heavy as they were for our 7 day, cold-season Isle Royale trip. We just wouldn't be hiking nearly as far with them -- a grand planned total of about 9 miles.

There used to be a giant parking deck here

Saturday July 29, 2023: Thus it was with heavy packs but light hearts that we headed north. After a long drive -- made longer by a massive backup on the Mackinac Bridge -- we arrived in Houghton for the night. Nothing beats a beautiful evening in the north, so we ate dinner at a picnic table in Houghton's waterfront park. We each got food from favorite places: Sarah from Sky Sushi, which more than one person has sworn is the best sushi they've ever had (!?), me from Studio Pizza.

After the meal was done and we were simply lounging around, I suddenly realized something. Houghton's infamous and ugly waterfront parking deck was gone! I knew it had been demolished, but despite sitting next to its former site for half an hour, I simply hadn't noticed. The waterfront looked and felt... normal. Nice work, Houghton.

Sunday July 30, 2023: We woke up in our wholly adequate hotel room and walked to Cyberia, a long-established Houghton coffee shop that I hadn't been in for years. I was amazed to realize that they were charging the same prices for coffee as we'd pay in the middle of Grand Rapids! Nonetheless, we paid, because, well, it was coffee. We ate lunch at Gino's in Hancock, which was brand new to both of us -- we chose it for its nice patio on this lovely and sunny day. After a nice lunch, we headed south to the Porkies.

The Visitor Center's driveway and parking lot were under construction, so we detoured to the temporary Visitor Center -- the Porkies Ski Chalet -- and quickly and easily checked in. From there, we had to drive nearly the entire way around the border of the park -- about 25 miles -- to get to Speakers trailhead.

The many potholed gravel patches on South Boundary Road made the drive around the park on South Boundary Road more interesting than usual. It looked like many culverts had been repaired, but the road had not been repaved. We hit the first pothole hard, and then took much of the rest of the road at about 20 miles per hour.

We pulled in to Speakers trailhead and grabbed our heavy packs. We were off, down Speakers trail, but not to Speakers -- also a favorite cabin -- but rather to the newly purchased Cotten cabin, just a little way down the shoreline and along a very short and flat trail. Indeed, it turned out that this trail used to be a driveway -- for cars!

Cotten cabin from the shore. Garage on the left, sauna building between them.

Cotten 8-bunk cabin is truly deluxe. Staying at it risks becoming glamping. The cabin was built by the owners of a small parcel of private land within the Porkies, and in the last few years the park was able to acquire that land and the cabin on it. As a result, the cabin is vastly different from other Porkies cabins. For one thing, it has a bunch of buildings in addition to the cabin: A garage (locked), an outhouse, a wood shed, and a sauna (open!). The cabin itself seems to have been hand built, with great care. It has three rooms, something unheard of in most Porkies cabins: A large kitchen-living room combo with a "breakfast bar", futon, and Adirondack chairs around a wood stove; a bunk room with four small bunks, and a second bedroom with a single larger bed. A curious box next to the wood stove turned out to be a battery attached to a solar panel on the roof, with a USB charging port installed in the front. The log book claimed that it was broken, but it successfully charged my camera (aka phone) once I pushed a tiny, nearly invisible button to activate the charger. What luxury!

Chairs, wood stove, and an end table (!) in Cotten cabin.

There's also a front porch featuring a couple of benches, two picnic tables, and a lovely stretch of beach, where we quickly set up our camping chairs. The lake bluff was much lower than at the nearby Speakers cabin, making it easier to get down to the beach. Speakers was just across a tall ridge, but there was a lot of shoreline erosion that made it dodgy at best to walk in that direction.

The lake was stirred up and choppy. Sarah, like the fish she is, decided that the lake was more than calm enough to go swimming. She convinced me to give it a try too, and I waded in as far as my knees before deciding that I'd had enough. Lake Superior, even in late July, is not warm. We did find a large "sitting rock" that let us enjoy the sun for a while, but eventually we went back to our camp chairs.

We dried out while reading, and then had a freeze-dried dinner -- Chana Masala, a new and slightly too spicy option for us. Not long after that, we went to bed with the sound of the waves lulling us to sleep.

Today's distance: 1 mile

Camp chair on the beach of Cotten cabin

Monday July 31, 2023: I woke up at 9:30 am, after something like 10 hours of sleep. Sarah stayed asleep even longer than me. We must have needed this vacation!

I started my morning with tea down at a picnic table near the beach, next to the now-calm lake. When Sarah joined me, we enjoyed breakfast (our usual: instant oatmeal) and even more tea. Then Sarah went for her second swim of the trip, although I decided not to join her this time.

We took our time reading, enjoying the view, and slowly packing up. We finally left around 1 pm, walking 1 mile down the extremely flat and easy trail back to our car. Cotten was a spectacular cabin in a beautiful setting. It would also be a lot roomier for larger groups compared to Speakers cabin. We will definitely be back.

We drove all the way back around the park, watching out for gravel patches and potholes, and then turned left on M-107. Our goal was Lake of the Clouds, but along the way we passed the Porcupine Mountains Outpost, a touristy shop filled with snacks and t-shirts. Of course we immediately pulled in and purchased ice cream cones (a waffle cone for me!), and sat outside enjoying them. This was super-duper slackpacking. The day was warming up considerably, and the cool ice cream was a great treat.

Wild daisies near Cotten cabin

We continued to Lake of the Clouds, where we ended up in a small traffic jam at the entrance booth. The employee manning the booth must have loved to chat with tourists, because we could see him doing exactly that, at great length and with much gesturing. I suppose it's a good thing that the person who probably meets the most people in the park also happens to like talking with them.

We passed through quickly -- no questions, no need for a map, thanks! -- and drove up to the parking lot. The Lake of the Clouds overlook was busy with tourists, many of them seemingly annoyed at having to walk 100 yards on paved trails to enjoy the spectacular view. We enjoyed the view ourselves, then headed back to the car to prepare for our hike down to our next cabin, the well-named Lake of the Clouds cabin.

That's when Sarah noticed a missing wheel cover. It had undoubtedly gone flying off at one of those pothole-ridden gravel patches. It's an annoyingly expensive part, and it was still fairly early in the afternoon, so we decided to go drive to the worst of the potholes and look for the wheel cover. Back in the car, back down M-107, turn right, follow South Boundary Road... I jumped out of the car and waded through the grassy shoulder as Sarah slowly continued along. Nothing. We checked two more bad spots with equal luck.

After that, it was either driving another 20 miles checking out every single pothole, or give up. We gave up (and decided not to replace the wheel cover). Sarah eventually pulled in to the Nonesuch Mine parking lot to turn around. This mine site is unmarked from the road, but has all sorts of interesting history and geology down an easy trail. As long as we were there, we decided to look around. We hiked in through the mine's old townsite (now a grassy field), past ruins from the mine's many (always unsuccessful) incarnations, and stopped at the Little Iron River and its many small waterfalls. It was an enjoyable detour, all thanks to a missing wheel cover.

Ruin at Nonesuch mine

We drove back to Lake of the Clouds (and past the talkative park employee), parked, and hitched on our backpacks. This time we groaned as we hiked uphill on the nicely paved trails, because we then immediately had to hike down off the Escarpment, losing 300 feet in elevation extremely quickly until we bottomed out near Lake of the Clouds. As we hiked down, somewhere close by a tree crashed to the ground, echoing through the forest. That gave us pause, and made us even more grateful for the cabin we were about to be in.

At the start of the spur trail to the cabin, the normal sign explaining that there's a cabin ahead had been rigged up with an "Occupied" sign. It gave us pause for a moment, until we realized that it must have been left there by the previous renters -- we were tonight's renters!

Sarah with the "Occupied" sign

The Lake of the Clouds cabin is -- as it was at my last (solo) visit -- beautiful. It has a lot of fancy features, such as a ceiling (it helps the cabin warm up faster in shoulder seasons!), a set of steps for accessing the upper bunks, and a collection of topographic and fishing maps. Once our packs were off, Sarah quickly set up her hammock and laid back for an afternoon of reading. I sat in my camp chair, paging through the log book. Many entries complained about people "accidentally" coming down the access trail, clearly to peek at the cabin, or even just to access the lake. A recent pair of renters had made and attached the "Occupied" sign, and it was working wonders. We had no "accidental" visitors at all.

Out on the lake, a family of trumpeter swans toured around -- perhaps the same parents that I'd seen in 2021. There were enough bugs to warrant some bug spray, but not enough to chase us inside, and so we whiled away several hours reading and enjoying the serene setting.

Dinner was freeze-dried lasagna, always good. We sat back outside for a while, until the serenity was shattered by the shouts of a noisy group of campers carried across the lake. This drove us inside and in to bed, at which point Sarah's inflatable pillow popped and couldn't be repaired. She ended up laying her head on a rolled-up pile of clothes. It was an odd end to an odd, but generally good, day.

Today's distance: 3.5 miles (1 mile from Cotten, 1.5 miles at Nonesuch, 1 mile down to Lake of the Clouds)
Total distance: 4.5 miles

Sarah's hammock at Lake of the Clouds

Tuesday August 1, 2023: The morning was hazy and smelled slightly of smoke from Canadian wildfires, the story of the summer of 2023.

The Lake of the Clouds cabin comes with both a rowboat and a canoe. Actually, two canoes, as the logbook reported somebody hauling one out of the weeds near the end of the lake -- I wish I knew the story there. The oars and oarlocks on the rowboat were both completely borked. The rescued canoe was leaky. That left the other canoe, and the logbook promised that a snake lived in it. I turned over the canoe, and sure enough, zip! went a tiny snakey tail, hiding inside one of the enclosed ends of the canoe. Not surprisingly, no amount of shaking and banging on the sides made it come out. Sarah promised me that if that snake emerged while we were in the middle of the lake, we would not remain upright long enough to get back to shore. So, no boating for us.

Instead we laid back and read some more, Sarah in a hammock, me in a camp chair. We were doing a lot of sitting and reading on this trip, and it was wonderful.

Lake of the Clouds cabin with snaky canoe (front) and leaky canoe (back).

In the early afternoon, we packed up and headed back out to our next cabin. The climb up to the Escarpment was invigorating as always. Based on advice in the log book, we followed an unmarked (but very well established) "shortcut" trail that cut off the Lake of the Clouds lookout, avoiding a bunch of elevation gain and many annoying tourists.

We again stopped at the Outpost, where we again acquired ice cream cones ("We just got waffle cones back!" said the person serving me my second waffle cone from this very location in as many days). We discovered that the Outpost had wifi, so we sat at a picnic table and checked in with our phones, ruining the mellow disconnection of the past few days. Sure enough, multiple things were on fire in my professional world, and we ended up spending half an hour sitting there as I tried to straighten things out. At least there was ice cream.

When the smoke was finally clearing, we were more than ready to head back into the woods. Our next stop was Buckshot cabin, which was the very first Porkies cabin we stayed in (back in 2014) but had never revisited. To get there, we expected to have to park at Lake of the Clouds and hike half of a mile downhill to the Lake Superior Trailhead. So, we drove back to Lake of the Clouds, noticing some cars parked along the shoulder near the trailhead as we did so. At the booth, we asked the chatty employee about this and learned that it was completely OK to park along the shoulder of M-107 overnight at the Lake Superior Trailhead. We turned around and did exactly that.

Just a few of the rocks on the Lake Superior trail.

We also had not been back on this particular stretch of the Lake Superior Trail since 2014. I remembered the beginning -- a flat trail in a beautiful Hemlock forest -- and the long, slow downhill that followed it. But then suddenly the trail turned to pure rocks. Somehow I did not recall this unpleasant change at all. The trail was essentially following the back side of the Escarpment, exposing angled and jagged slabs of reddish sandstone that tended to shatter into pointy plates and large cobbles. It was hard to find, much less keep, our footing in many places.

Sarah, on the other hand, totally recalled the rocks but was surprised by the downhill. We relied heavily on our hiking poles this time -- something we hadn't had at all last time -- and made slow progress over the tilted bedrock, beach cobbles, and occasional washouts.

We started to encounter a few ripe thimbleberries along the trail, the first of the trip, and took every chance to stop and enjoy them. We also passed a campsite part way up the hillside -- LS-19 -- where a backpacker was packing up and heading out. We stopped to chat, and he made it clear that the site was unpleasant, buggy, had no view, and that he was getting out of Dodge rather than staying at it.

We finally made it to the bottom of the hill, much more tired than we should have been, and quickly found Buckshot cabin. My recollection here, at least, was accurate: Buckshot is a beautiful cabin. Its interior is nicely finished with lovely pine paneling, very similar to Lake of the Clouds cabin. Also like Lake of the Clouds, its big banks of windows provide a lot of light. And better yet, it is just steps from the Greatest Lake. But it's not quite as close to the lake as I remembered, nor does it have much of a view. When I was last here, in June 2014, the area between the cabin and lake shore was mostly low-growing ferns that allowed us a decent view. In the years since then, those ferns had been overtaken by shoulder-high thimbleberry bushes and other high brush that completely surrounded the cabin. This made it nicely private, but also eliminated any views of the lake.

Buckshot cabin, mostly surrounded by brush

We unpacked quickly and took our chairs down to the lake shore to continue our trend of high-quality sitting-and-reading time. We pushed through the thimbleberries on a narrow path to the shore. The shore in this area is made of huge slabs of angled bedrock, clearly related to the rock that made up the trail above it, so we had to wedge smaller rocks under the feet of our chairs to keep them level. As we sat, a bald eagle flew above us, then landed on an outcrop of bedrock farther down the shore and stood for a while, looking majestic and such.

Eventually, Sarah decided that it was time for her daily swim in Lake Superior. The lake was calm and I was still hot from the rough hike, so I joined her as well. Walking into the lake was a real trick: The sloping bedrock formed many underwater dips and divots, and its smooth surface was slick with algae. Nonetheless, the swim was wonderful. We splashed around in the water, friction-scrubbed our faces clean, and generally felt cleaner and cooler than we had in a few days.

Sarah stayed out in the lake to float and enjoy life, while I went back up to the "beach". I pulled out a can of hard cider that we'd backpacked in from the car, rigged it up to a cord attached to a small tree, and set it in Lake Superior to cool. Then I sat back in my chair to read the logbook, which included an epic (and possibly even true) multi-page story about rangers in a boat rescuing a camper in distress.

Sunset from Buckshot landing

Once Sarah had gotten out from the lake, we made dinner (Fettucine Alfredo, always a favorite) and enjoyed it with the Lake Superior-cooled cider. We went back out to the shore to enjoy the best sunset of the trip.

After dark, we curled up in our bunks to read. I was feeling strangely melancholy -- the end of summer, maybe, or the shock of reconnecting to civilization and finding so many work-related problems -- so we figured out how to curl up together in one of the bunks. This was a nontrivial challenge, but it helped, as did the quiet and pleasant setting. But as we talked, a problem came up: What is the weather going to be like over the next few days? It was growing hot and humid, and felt like storms could be possible.

Our satellite communicator has a weather feature, so we checked it out. Sure enough, it predicted thunderstorms in the morning, with more possible later in the day. We were planning to stay at Buckshot for an extra full day, so that wasn't necessarily a problem. Nonetheless, both of us were tired out from the surprisingly difficult hike, and the possibility of having to hike out in hot, humid, and wet conditions after a storm -- or worse yet, in a storm -- didn't sound great. We discussed some contingency plans, including leaving early if the rain appeared later in the day instead.

But for now, we settled in to sleep. The cabin log book had said nothing about mice, but I could hear them chewing away at the door as I fell asleep. Indeed, in the morning, we could seen bits of mousy debris around the outside of the door.

Today's distance: 3.2 miles (1 mile up from Lake of the Clouds, 2.2 miles down to Buckshot)
Total distance: 7.7 miles

Asters growing in a crack in the lakeshore bedrock

Friday August 2, 2023: We woke up to find... no rain whatsoever. No storms had happened overnight, and nothing appeared in the sky.

We checked the weather forecast again, and discovered that the storms had moved to early tomorrow morning -- our departure day. We looked at each other, thinking about hiking up that steep, rocky, slick hill in the rain, and agreed: We would leave today.

But, not immediately. After all, leaving a day early gave us a lot of wiggle room, and we were currently hanging out in a beautiful cabin on Lake Superior's shore. So first, we went back down to the shore for some quality sitting and swimming. I did the sitting, Sarah did the swimming (4 days in a row!). It was a clear morning and a calm lake.

Harebells on the lakeshore

After a sufficient amount of laying around and relaxing, we went back to the cabin, packed up, and headed up the hill. We took it slow up the steep, rocky slope, stopping as often as possible to enjoy thimbleberries. There seemed to be even more than yesterday. Later, blueberries appeared and we enthusiastically added them in to the mix.

The uphill made us hot and sweaty, made worse by the hot, humid, and sunny weather. We met multiple groups of unhappy hikers heading each direction. Nobody was having a good day in this heat and humidity. Near the top, we met a huge group of kids with a few fresh-looking adults. Little did they know what the trail ahead looked like.

The last bit of the trail -- through the shady and level hemlock forest -- was pleasant, but we were grateful when we finally saw the car ahead. We blasted air conditioning all the way to the Ski Chalet, where we dropped off our keys and washed our hands under real running water.

After that, we made a long, slow, and pleasant trip back home across the next two days. We had lunch on the L'Anse waterfront, grabbed a hotel room in St. Ignace, took a fun walk through town, and had a great breakfast the next day. Then we drove the rest of the way home, happy with our choice to leave early.

Today's distance: 2.2 miles (up from Buckshot)
Grand total distance: 9.9 miles over 4 days

Rocks on a log in front of Cotten cabin

Final thoughts: Despite our early departure, my odd melancholy, and our missing hubcap, the trip was a good one. Visiting the Porkies in late July/early August has some advantages, most especially the ripe thimbleberries, blueberries, and ice cream cones! On the downside, the park was quite busy, although the quiet of the cabins themselves was uninterrupted. Plus, at the peak of summer it's hard to avoid heat, humidity, and of course bugs. Then again, spring and fall both bring cold, mud, and different bugs. Given the choice, I generally prefer the colder weather and quieter trails of spring, but any visit to the Porkies is worthwhile, whatever the time of year.

We enjoyed the short hikes, and as always the cabins helped make the trip even better. We had a good batch of cabins this time. Cotten cabin is a new favorite, joining Speakers for one of the top places in our ranking. It might even edge out Speakers, because Cotten is much larger (Speakers is small even for a 4-bunk cabin) and has much easier access to the lake. Using the sauna at Cotten is high on my list of future Porkies escapades.

Lake of the Clouds cabin remains one of my favorites for its location, but Sarah found it to be OK at best. The broken and/or snake-filled boats were a big part of that, as was the painful hike up the Escarpment on the way out. On the other hand, we had no trouble with unwanted visitors. I was glad to visit it a second time, and we'll certainly stay at the cabin if it's at a convenient place on one of our future routes, but it's unlikely that we'll go out of our way to return.

Buckshot cabin is also a lovely and well-maintained cabin in a beautiful setting. If only it weren't located on the eastern half of the Lake Superior trail, with a huge rocky downhill on one side, and 6 miles of wet, boggy, badly maintained trail on the other. If you can get to Buckshot, stay there for an extra day at least to make it worth it (and/or to give you some flexibility to avoid hiking out in bad weather).

In the end, despite some literal and figurative ups and downs, it was a good trip, and I was glad to be able to once again visit my favorite place on earth.

Check out my complete list of backpacking, hiking, and camping stories.